One person’s ‘roadblock’ is another person’s mountain pass.

(This article was originally published January 18, 2003. In the eight years since then, many of the “insurmountable problems” mentioned here are now a snap with the Internet–online catalogs, online printing services, less expensive options for websites, etc. But there’s still good information in here, and a lot of good thoughts about overcoming obstacles.)

Marketing and selling one-of-a-kind artwork can be problematic.

If you’re dealing with local stores, you could bring an assortment to each store. Store owners simply make their selections. No problem!

But store visits mean time away from your studio. There’s a limit to how many stores you can drive to in a day–stores don’t like it when you saturate the area with your work. What if you live in New Hampshire, and a store in California would be a terrific venue for your work? And what do you do about about re-orders??

Catalogs? It can be hard even with production work. Some stores don’t mind if an item varies from one to the next. But some do. And catalogs are expensive. They work best for featuring production work. They’re most cost-effective when ordered in large quantities. Not for one-of-a-kind work, nor work that changes constantly.

Advertising? That gets expensive, too. I obviously can’t run an ad for $500 to sell one individual item that retails for $250. If a store likes the object in the ad, then that’s the one they want.

Wholesale trade shows can be a way to present your one-of-a-kind items to many stores. But these shows are expensive to do–booth fees often start at $1,400 and up, plus hidden costs like travel, hotel and electricity. Not a good choice for many artists just starting out.

Well…why not go right to the source? Call stores directly. Ask them if they sell one-of-a-kind work. If so, how do they buy it from the artisan? Do they go to shows? Which ones? Do they browse an artist’s website? You can get good information this way. But this is time-consuming. And introverts hate it. (I do!)

The best way is to ask other artists how they handle this.

Online discussion forums are great places to find out what works for others. You’ll find a wide range of artists from all over the country who can share their process or make suggestions. There’s just one caveat.

What works for one person and their product, may not work for you and yours.

Even worse….If no one in the group has figured it out, it can be an exercise in frustration and commiseration. Instead of a brain-storming session, it turns into a …… Well, everyone starts agreeing just how impossible the whole scenario is. And that’s bad. Because….

You don’t want to give yourself an excuse to just give up.

Declaring a situation impossible to deal with lets us off the hook. It’s not our fault, we tell ourselves. We are not responsible for our lack of success–it’s obviously impossible to succeed!

I used to get overwhelmed by roadblocks, too. I thought there had to be a “right way” to do this. And I just had to figure out what that “right way” was.

If I couldn’t figure it out–I’m off the hook! If others succeed where I can’t, then it’s because they’re lucky–right? And I’m just not lucky.

Nope. No more. I can’t let myself off that easily. In my heart, I know it can take years to be an ‘overnight success’.

And no one succeeds by giving up.

Mistakes and dead ends don’t prove you’re wrong. They’re merely evidence there’s still more to be learned.

There is no single “right way”. There’s simply the way that will work for YOU.

I’ve learned that the first thing I need is an attitude adjustment. Trial-and-error sucks. So let’s call it… “running an experiment”. That’s much more appealing! Cold-calling stores for information is hard. I’ll call it “market research”. That sounds quite professional.

Second, I watch for other people doing one-of-a-kind work. If they’ve been doing it awhile, they’ve found something that works for them. So
maybe it would work for me.

I came across an artist, a graphic artist who makes one-of-a-kind books. For years she struggled with marketing her work, until she finally came up with a solution. She tweaked her business model to accommodate both retail and wholesale venues.

She makes limited edition books to wholesale. She only sells her one-of-a-kind journals at retail shows.

This is my favorite way to find solutions. Because if someone else has figured out how to do it, so can I. If she can grow her business by tweaking her business model just a bit–from all one-of-a-kind work to some one-of-a-kind and a lot of limited editions, so can I.

If she can follow her passion and find a way to support herself doing it, so can I.

Luck is wonderful. But as someone once said, “Luck is opportunity plus preparedness.”

Do your research, keep your eyes open for opportunity, and you will fly over those roadblocks.

Update: In the eight years since I first wrote this article, everything has changed. Now we can offer wholesale customers password-protected online catalogs. We can take our own digital images and upload them quickly and easily to our website, or our online store. We can find stores and galleries more easily, and contact them by email (if the phone is too stressful.)

It’s a miracle! :^)

Also, for jewelry or other small, easily shipped items, a “pick box” works beautifully for some stores. A store can secure their order with a credit card number. You ship an assortment of items to them. They select the items they want, and ship the box back to you. You bill them for the items they’ve taken. Works great with one-of-a-kind items!


Deciding if you should do a wholesale show.

When people ask if they should do this big-name show or that new wholesale show, I think of that old song by musician David Bromberg….

“A man should never gamble
more than he can stand to lose….”

(From his song, “Diamond Lil” on the Demons in Disguise album.)

This question came up again in a forum I frequent, and this is my response:

I haven’t done the ACRE show in a few years–I did their first show in Las Vegas, and stopped doing wholesale shows soon after, after about seven years of doing shows like BMAC (wholesale), ACC Baltimore (wholesale/retail) & ACRE Las Vegas (wholesale).

Here are some points to consider:

1) Wholesale shows are EXPENSIVE. And even a good wholesale show is with an established reputation and good management, is not a sure thing. Used to be, but not any more.

2) First year shows are notoriously dicey. An artist friend with 30 years in the biz recently told me, “Never do a first year show or a show you can’t drive to.” I’ve learned the hard way this is excellent advice on both counts.

Wholesale buyers are still being cautious, and buyers at first year shows are the most cautious. Adding travel costs and shipping costs (for your booth) on top of that and you can easily spend $5,000 on a show with no guarantee you’ll get the orders to even recoup your investment (let alone enough to make a profit.) I don’t know where you live, but that’s something to consider.

3) Who are your customers? Who do you hope to find there? Years ago a good wholesale show would draw from stores and galleries across the country. Now, more buyers tend to stick close to home. So there MIGHT be buyers from all over, but it’s MORE LIKELY the buyers will be local. So…are stores in Orlando and Florida your target audience?

4) Have you done any shows at all? Even smaller, local ones, just to tweak your booth, display, selling skills, support materials?

I’m all for people going for their dreams and dreaming big. But you say you’ve only been in business a few months, and you’re still in the process of “building a website, creating a collection”, etc. Doing a wholesale show is a huge outlay in money, time, energy.

Are you–and your business–ready??

You might be one of those people we read about who takes that leap and flies. But doing a wholesale show is a HUGE leap, one that’s daunting even for people who already have some experience doing small shows, doing wholesale, etc.

Almost all shows across the country, retail and wholesale, have taken a hit in attendance and sales. And $3,000 is a lot of money. So…..

5) Can you afford to gamble $3,000–and lose?

My advice: I think the smarter bet is to take advantage of the Visiting Artist/ABI program. I was actually a guest faculty member for ABI, and it’s a good deal.

The critique will be helpful (though remember, even expert advice is still just one person’s opinion). They can advise you on all kinds of wholesale matters: Are you sure you’re making an adequate profit on your product? Do you have reliable sources for supplies? (If one critical supplier drops out, can you still make your product?) Are you solid on your production schedule and shipping procedures? Are you familiar with industry standards re: billing, payment, terms, etc.? Do you know how to qualify your buyers?

And you will get a chance to actually visit the show.FWIW, I think the most educational thing any craftsperson can do (who wants to do a wholesale show) is to VISIT THE SHOW FIRST. You’ll get to see what the deal is, you’ll be able to see how many buyers show up, and you’ll get to talk to exhibitors (if they are not busy and if they are willing, of course).

I wrote a entire series on how to wholesale on my old blog, but this new series I did on how to “half wholesale”–get started building your wholesale biz before doing a major show, may be more helpful to you. You can see links to both series here.

And all this information was before selling on the Internet became a “big deal”! Add in all you know now about websites and selling in your own online store, and you’ll be off to a good start

VACATION MODE–OFF! Sunburn, Island Dogs and Fire Safety

We’re back from our very first Caribbean family vacation. We spent a week on the Turks and Caicos islands. And yes, it’s as beautiful as it looks in the pictures.

My sun-lovin’ husband is happy, happy, happy, but despite avoiding the sun between 10 and 3, applying not one but two layers of sunblock (we’re talking zinc oxide here, people) and staying in the shade, I managed to get so sunburned I needed medical intervention. I love the idea of a tropical island, but I’m afraid I could never really survive on one.

Most people come back from the islands with seashells, or maybe a t-shirt. We came back with a potcake puppy.

We actually adopted our little sweetie (a male–we’re still arguing over names) from the Turks & Caicos SPCA. The folks there arranged every single detail of our adoption and transportation of this pup, and another one who will be eagerly welcomed at our own local animal shelter.

Our Monadnock Human Society has had such incredible success with their spay and neuter program that we actually have a shortage of mixed-breed dogs available for adoption in the region. The TCSPCA, on the other hand, is desperate to find homes for these abandoned dogs. They already have connections with other shelters in the U.S. We’re hoping this newest connection with our local shelter will result in more wonderful new homes for these amazing island dogs.

Traveling with these two puppies through three airports, customs, immigration, one delayed flight and a long layover, was a piece of cake. Many airport personnel were familiar with the dogs; you haven’t lived til you’ve seen a stern and proper customs official melt at the sight of one of these pups. One former islander laughed heartily and said, “Yah, we say ‘potcake’, but you say ‘MUTT’!” That’s exactly what they are, of course, lovable, affable mutts.

People unfamiliar with them cannot believe how relaxed and happy the puppies were. They really are mellow, loving dogs, and we hope more can find their way to the states.

And to get right back to business, here is this excellent article on fire safety for your booth by Candy Adams in Exhibitor magazine. It’s one of the best I’ve seen on the subject, and though it’s written for “the big guys” at major trade shows, it offers good insight and clarity for us artists/craftspeople and our more humble booths.

How to Halfway Wholesale: #2 p.s.

In the last essay, I left out an important resource in point #1 (advertising in published materials distributed at the show.)

Well, DUH, most shows have a show guide or program. This is an excellent place for an ad–if and only if your budget allows. Do not go into debt or risk financial instability to pay for big advertising campaigns.

But a good ad in the guide/program targets your primary audience–buyers at the show. So if you can afford an ad of any size, this is the best place to put one.

As for point #8 (FOLLOW UP!), I have no idea where that cool guy smiley face came from. It kept showing up, and I kept taking it out. I guess the universe just wants him there. Well, it is important to follow up. And everyone always tells me I need more graphics in these posts.

And do not panic if I don’t get another post out in this series for a few days. My family is taking my father to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. this weekend. So the next essay may be delayed.

My dad served in the Navy in WWII, in a land-based initiative in China called SACO (for the Sino-American Cooperative Organization). He has never boasted or made a fuss about his military service, though I know he is proud of it. We’re looking forward to this opportunity to let him know how proud we are, too.

How to Half Wholesale #2: Wholesale Shows

Most people assume wholesale shows are the only serious “next step” to building your wholesale business.

They can be. As recently as a handful of years ago, a good wholesale show could bootstrap your wholesale business efficiently and quickly.

Times have changed. It’s not impossible to achieve immediate success with such shows. But it’s not a sure thing anymore. And like any other endeavor we’ll talk about over the next few essays, it takes preparation. Lots and lots and lots of preparation.

A few guidelines to evaluating whether a wholesale show is right for you, and then we’ll explore ways to do them without spending $5,000.

Always–always–walk a show first. Visit and see for yourself what’s going on.

See how many buyers are there and what kind of businesses they represent. Are they stores that would target your audience? And note if they are actually placing orders.

Note what vendors are there. Is your work compatible, similar, in the same general ball park? Or is your work wildly dissimilar? (Not necessarily a bad thing, but it takes skill and insight to work that disparity.) Talk to exhibitors to learn their experiences with the show (when they don’t have anyone in their booth, of course.)

Take advantage of any guest visitor services or programs. The BUYERS MARKET OF AMERICAN CRAFT, a show that targets retailers of fine contemporary American handcraft, offers a stellar Visiting Artists Program run by the Arts Business Institute. (I am proud to say I am a former faculty member of ABI.) Programs like these can be an excellent introduction to the art of doing a wholesale show.

Before deciding to do a show, calculate the total cost of doing such a show. Not just the booth fee (easily $1,400 and up), but the cost of shipping your booth and work to the show (and drayage charges to haul it around the show, if that isn’t included); your travel, hotel and food expenses; taxis (if you find a cheaper hotel far from the exhibition hall); electricity and other services for your booth; support materials (catalog or line sheets, displays, banners or posters, etc.); advertising and promotion (if you decide to place an ad in the show program).

If you do the show, PREPARE. Contact potential buyers before the show, and invite them to your booth. Send postcards to current and potential customers, with an image of your newest work and your show info (booth number, show specials, etc.) Conventional wisdom calls for a minimum of two mailings! (If you don’t have a mail list of current or prospective clients, see a future essay in this series on building a mailing list from scratch.)

You can call your best accounts and extend a personal invitation. Some artists even offer to purchase show tickets and distribute them to buyers. It can be money well spent if it gets your target store buyers to the show.

Last, be aware of the differences between a fine craft wholesale show (such as the BMAC or the new AMERICAN CRAFT RETAILERS EXPO and a gift show like THE BOSTON GIFT SHOW. A gift show may indeed be a good fit for your product. But know that you’ll be competing with vendors selling imported and manufactured goods. There may also be a higher risk of your product ideas being stolen or copied easily.

Let’s say you’ve already decided that a wholesale show, or its buying audience, is absolutely the next step for you. What are ways to explore this market and/or get your work in front of attendees without going 100% all the way?

1) Advertise in materials that will be distributed at the show.

For example, industry-related publishers often distribute free samples of their magazines at the show. A great ad can draw attention to your work at a time where buyers are actively thinking about buying. At wholesale fine craft shows, you can often find The Crafts Report, Niche and AmericanStyle magazines, New Age Retailer, Giftwear News, etc. If you can’t afford a regular ad (ranging from $500 and up), groups such as often place large co-op ads in these same magazines at a greatly reduced cost. (pssst! This tip will also appear in an essay on how to have a presence at a wholesale show when you are not an exhibitor!)

2) Try a group or co-op booth.

Large shows like the Boston Gift Show sometimes offer discounted or comped booth space to large craft guilds and associations. (They are, of course, hoping you will love the experience and eventually want to have your own booth!)

If you are–or could be–a member of such a group, you can often participate with the group for not very much money. See my article Boston Gift Show 101. This can be an affordable and highly educational option.

3) Share a booth.

Some shows allow you to share a single booth space, halving your show fees right up front. There are pros and cons, of course, ranging from “Are your two bodies of work compatible or competitive?” to “Are you and your booth mate compatible or competitive?”

4) Travel light.

Select local or regional shows to cut down on travel expenses. It’s a lot cheaper for me to attend the Boston Gift Show, a two-hour drive away, than the ACRE show in Las Vegas, plus I can stay with friends in Boston for free. Of course, this doesn’t work if the ACRE show targets a better audience! Still, it’s something to consider.

If you drive to shows, buddy up with another vendor and cut down on your travel expenses. Share a hotel room. Find alternative ways to eliminate costly restaurant meals. For example, Reading Terminal Market, right across the street from the BMAC show, offers fresh fruits, sandwiches, take-away food that can save you big bucks over fancy dinners out.

5) Keep your booth light.

We all want to have a spectacular booth display. But if money is extremely tight, bring a minimal display to cut down on shipping costs. Tighten your inventory to your best sellers. Rely on large banners over pricey (and heavy) framed posters and wall treatments.

If you have any doubts about wholesale shows, it’s sometimes cheaper to rent basics like lights, carpeting, display cases or tables instead of buying these outright. You’ll also save on shipping costs if you can’t drive to the show.

Yes, a fancy display helps bring people in your booth. Yes, all the extras create a beautiful environment for customers. But your work is what makes them want to buy. If you’re a newbie, use that to your advantage, instead of trying to look like the Big Boys with the fabulous display.

6) Use FREE publicity instead of ads.

Distribute press releases before show (start six months before so your story has time to get picked up by magazines and newspapers). Email potential customers (but send links to your website or images instead of embedding them in the email itself.) Be ready for the media that comes to the show and bring press kits.

7) Be a renegade!

Some artists (like the Baltimore Alternative Show) set up their own mini-shows in nearby hotels while the “big” show goes on in the exhibition hall. You may not get the throngs of buyers, but…a) there aren’t any throngs anywhere anymore anyway, and b) your expenses are so low (no booth fee, just the cost of your hotel room), you don’t need as many buyers.


In every alternative/half measure we discuss, remember that following up on your leads and prospects will double, even triple your success. Make that phone call to the gallery that expressed interest but wasn’t quite ready to buy. Mail that info you promised. Track down every lead, opportunity, connection you made at the show, whether it’s a potential sale, a networking piece, an exhibition opportunity. You never know where your next break will come from.

If you have suggestions for how to drastically reduce the cost of doing a wholesale show, jump in!

Then we’ll take about options besides wholesale shows for growing the wholesale side of your biz.